Author – Yrsa Sigurdardottir (translated by Philip Roughton)
Published – 2012
Genre – Horror
It’s hard to believe that this is the first part of my Icelandic reading where the author is actually Icelandic. A featured author at Iceland Noir, Yrsa Sigurdardottir is better known for crime fiction than horror or ghost stories. In fact I hadn’t heard of this book until I saw Yrsa on a panel about writers who wrote books in more than one genre at Crimefest in May. Having enjoyed the books in her Thora Gudmundsdottir series I was curious to read something more scary and with our trip to Iceland just days away it was the perfect time to pick this up.
There are several different plotlines in the story. The main one features three friends who are embarking on a project to renovate a house in an isolated (and seemingly deserted) village in the Westfjords of Iceland. The location is so remote that they have to be ferried to the village by boat leaving them no means of leaving until the boat returns. They’re not really cut out for either the harsh conditions or the task of renovating the building, but their efforts are soon cut short when mysterious things start to happen.
The other main thread is more akin to crime fiction and centres around a psychiatrist, Freyr, who is based on the mainland across the fjord. He consults for the local police and becomes involved in their investigation into a break-in at a local school, as well as the apparent suicide of an elderly woman. Freyr himself has suffered a tragedy in the past and a chance event means that, with the help of a female police officer, he starts his own investigation.
I did find the book slow to get going. The chapters switch between the different plotlines and perhaps this meant that I wasn’t quickly gripped by either. As this was also the first translated work I’d read in a while the English felt a little stilted, which didn’t help to engage me. But perseverance (and it didn’t take a great deal of effort) paid off.
The characters could be a bit irritating and a little on the dim side (if a small boy said to me “Don’t go to the bad place. You won’t come back.” I would be tempted to take notice). But Freyr and Katrin (one of the women renovating the house) are both sympathetic and strong characters, prepared to face their demons.
I can say for certain that Sigurdardottir knows how to crank up the tension! Most chapters end on something of a cliff-hanger and there were some incredibly tense scenes that I really wouldn’t have wanted to read when I was on my own. There is very little graphic horror but much more the fear of what you can’t see – what’s around the corner or behind the door. The story fits in well with the supernatural elements that often appear in Scandi and Nordic fiction and in an environment so harsh and with such long hours of darkness you can see why the supernatural plays a large part in their traditional and contemporary stories.
A chilling ghost story with real tension and a resolution that is very cleverly written. You can see another review at Crimepieces.
Score – 4/5